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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae

The buttercup family is moderately large, made up of 58 genera and nearly 2,505 species. While most members are herbaceous (non-woody) plants, a few are woody shrubs or vines. The family is well represented in our Northwest. Although it’s a diverse family, there are common characteristics: flower parts are free and not joined; many members have petal-like sepals and true petals are often lacking; the leaves are usually compound and three-parted, and the plants favor moist environments. Most of the Ranunculaceae produce poisonous alkaloids. Aside from the negative impact that certain Ranunculaceae, (Delphinium spp. especially) have on cattle and sheep, many members of the family have found a place in ornamental gardens; e.g., species of Aconitum (monkshood), Aquilegia (columbine), Clematis, Delphinium (larkspurs), Ranunculus, etc. The generic name Ranunculus (from which the family name is derived) is a diminutive form of the Latin rana,  the word for “frog”; i.e., something that grows in wet places.

The Western monks-hood, Aconitum columbianum Nutt. (left) is the only species of monkshood native to the Northwest. It flowers in midsummer in wet meadows, seep-springs, and along stream banks at mid- to high elevations. Deep purple flowers are spaced along the top of a tall stem. The “hood” is a petal-like sepal that encloses two small petals. All parts of the plants are poisonous. Criminals were executed and wolves were poisoned with a distillate from Aconitum lycoctonum, the European wolf’s-bane. Although the monkshood’s flowers, like those of the related larkspur, are almost always purple, occasionally albino forms turn up (right).

Red baneberry, Actaea rubra (Ait.) Willd. (left, right) grows in all of the northern states and provinces, along the banks of shaded streams. Short-lived white flowers form tight clusters. The shrub’s red (occasionally white) berries are poisonous. Actaea, from the Greek means elderberry as our plant’s leaflets apparently resemble the leaves of a European elder. The name rubra means “red” for the berries. The common name is derived from the Old English word “bane,” a word that means “poison.”

Sitka columbine, Aquilegia formosa Fisch. ex DC. (left, right). The Sitka (also red, or crimson) columbine is tall, with distinctive three-parted leaves, its sepals vary in color from pale orange to bright red, depending on growth conditions. These are set off by five, red-based, yellow petals and many long yellow anthers. The plants flower from late spring through mid-summer, as high as treeline. The scientific name Aquilegia was derived from the Latin word acquila meaning “eagle,” because the flower’s five spurs were thought to resemble an eagle’s claws. The species name, formosa, also from the Latin, means “beautiful.” Paradoxically—given the derivation of the generic name—“columbine” means “dove-like” because the spurs in some species are said to be shaped like the head and neck of a dove.

Yellow columbine, Aquilegia flavescens S. Watson (left) is another montane to alpine species that grows in Idaho’s mountains, although it is less common than the Sitka columbine. It is easily identified by its soft yellow sepals ranging at times to a pinkish color. It is closely related to Aquilegia formosa and the two species may form hybrids. All gradations of color between the vivid red and yellow of the former plant, and the overall soft yellow of this one are seen from time to time.

Blue columbine, Aquilegia coerulea E. James (right), is the Colorado state flower. Five varieties are recognized. The blue-petaled form,  var. coerulea, grows in the southeast corner of Idaho. A white-petaled variety, var. ochroleuca Hook., is more widespread ,extending into Central Idaho. The blue columbine has a large flower with long , nearly straight spurs that are approximately twice as long as the petals.

Note: most guide books spell this plant's species name as caerulea. According to botanical rule, the proper spelling is the one used when a plant is first described. Edward James, a member of the Long Colorado Expedition, named the plant Aquilegia coerulea.

White marsh marigold, Caltha leptosepala DC. (left, right) is an early blooming subalpine to alpine plant that often grows in great numbers in wet mountain meadows, and on the banks of the seasonal ponds that form as snow melts. Its deep green leaves are an elongated heart shape. One to several stems each bear a showy white flower with a bright yellow center. Its “petals” are actually petaliform sepals that are sometimes tinged with blue. Caltha is a Latin word used for a yellow marigold; leptosepala, means “slender sepals.”

Anemones (windflowers, thimbleweeds), Anemone spp

Some anemones resemble other species in the buttercup family (e.g. Trollius, Caltha). They may be distinguished  by a rosette of leaves (bracts) on the stem below the flower--a feature of anemones in general.

Cliff anemone, Anemone multifida Poir. (left, right), grows on moist ground, from mid-elevations to alpine tundra. The name, multifida, means “much divided” referring to its deeply divided leaves. The flowers are “apetalous,” i.e, the “petals”—usually five or six—are actually petal-like sepals. Cliff anemones vary greatly in color, from off-white, through ochroleucous (pale yellow) to deep red, bluish, or even purple. Given the amount of variation, it is not surprising to learn that a half dozen varieties are recognized.

American pasqueflower, Anemone patens L. var. multifida Pritz. (left) is a lovely plant with large flowers and sepals that range in color from light blue to deep purple. Deeply incised leaves are characteristic and distinguish this plant from the similar western pasqueflower, Anemone occidentalis S. Wats., whose leaves are less dissected; it too grows in Idaho. “Pasqueflower” has long been used for a European anemone. John Gerard (1545-1612) in his Herbal of 1597 wrote, “They flower for the most part about Easter, which hath mooved me to name it Pasque flower, or Easter flower.”

Small-flowered anemone, Anemone parviflora Michx. (right) is usually found growing close to water, in moist meadows and on streambanks at subalpine elevations. Each plant bears a single flower made up of petaloid sepals. In the center yellow stamens surround a spherical head made up of green achenes (fruiting bodies). Anemone from the Greek is said to mean “daughter of the wind,” explaining why anemones are also known as “windflowers.” Another common name, “thimble-weed,” reflects the appearance of the fruiting head.

Piper’s anemone, Anemone piperi Britton ex Rydb., is common in the mountains of north-central Idaho. The plant is characterized by three compound leaves below a single, delicate white flower. It prefers the moist ground of shaded forests. Meriwether Lewis collected this—then unnamed—anemone near the Clearwater River on June 15, 1806. Frederick Pursh who classified the expedition’s material dropped the ball; apparently he concluded that Lewis’s specimen was the same plant as an eastern anemone, and did not include it with other expedition specimens in his Flora of 1813.

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